poetry & tsismis: emily's blog

February 12, 2012

Why I Couldn’t Watch it Twice: Nicki Minaj’s Grammy Performance and the Effect of Superstition

Getty Images / Billboard.com

Why I Couldn’t Watch it Twice: Nicki Minaj’s Grammy Performance & the Effect of Superstition

by Emily P. Lawsin

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Like everyone else who came of age on Whitney Houston songs, I watched the Grammys tonight to see Jennifer Hudson belt out an “I Will Always Love You” tribute to Whitney, barely 24-hours after the Pop Diva’s sudden death. Hudson did a fabulous rendition, which in the close-ups, you could tell was extremely emotional for her to do. That was to be expected; what was not expected (despite the announcer’s annoying “stick around” warning before each commercial break) was Nicki Minaj’s performance of her new single “Roman Holiday”. It was the most theatrical, mind-blowing Grammy performance I have ever seen: complete with her levitating amidst the backdrop of stained glass windows, and a video of an exorcism with an actor dressed as a priest (who was also Minaj’s date for the evening, dressed earlier as the Pope). Did I mention the flames and the smoke on stage?

My jaw dropped at the whole spectacle, which even had a dramatic black-out where the whole stage went briefly dark. At first I thought maybe the producers had pulled the plug on the whole show, but realized that maybe this was actually her “moment of silence” so Minaj could climb up to a higher riser. Afterwards, viewers (including me) lamented about how confused they were by it all.

Now if I was a “pure” cultural studies theorist (rather than a public historian/Pinay poet), then I might be inclined to pore over, rewind, and dissect the hell (pun intended) out of Minaj’s performance. However, I am more “Puro-Pinay” – a Filipina American – who was raised with so many superstitious beliefs beat into me from my Pinoy family and my best friend’s Creole family that I was frankly, a bit scared to even sit through the live TV broadcast. And I do mean scared.

The kind of hide-behind-the-pillow scared. The kind of “I’m-going-to-stay-up-all-night-and-work-or-write-about-this-so-I-don’t-have-nightmares” scared. The kind of “what-the-hell-was-she-thinking-she-got-hella-nerve” scared. The “Oh-no-she-didn’t-just-start-speaking-in-tongues” scared. The “oh-yes-she-did-scared-of-you” scared. Snap, snap!

See, I kind of understand where Nicki Minaj was coming from here, as her Indian and Afro-Trinidadian parents hail from a colonized island nation (Trinidad), like mine hailed from the colonized nation of the Philippines. It is this familial understanding of the legacy of centuries of empire, Catholicism, and Spanish colonialism that make me want to see Minaj’s performance as a critique of the church’s efforts to exorcise all demons. The title of the mini-movie shown, “Exorcising Roman”, refers to Minaj’s alter-ego Roman Zolanski (not to be confused with the infamous filmmaker Roman Polanski, director of horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and psycho-mysteries like Chinatown). The minute the word “EXORCISING” came on the screen: that’s when my superstitious instincts should’ve known something crazy was about to go down.

Yes, I know that sociologists argue that superstitions function in society to control behaviors. However, that does not easily erase them from one’s brain. I should have known something was up when Minaj strolled up the red carpet in a stunning red Versace robe-like gown looking like a cross between a devilish nun and a possessed Little Red Riding Hood. My Filipino elders always told me to wear red at night to ward off ghosts and evil spirits (or bangungot), especially after someone in the family has just died. So when the Roman character was zapped into the corner of the ceiling during the mini-movie, I almost screamed. Same for when the priest’s beady eyes looked like the reflections of the devil’s flames. Yeah, I know it’s all special effects, but damn, Nicki, why did you have to go there? Especially the night after Whitney died?

Maybe Minaj was just trying to push the envelope over the edge here with a multilayered homage to the occult? Or was it indeed a critique of the church, pro-life advocates, or their stance on homosexuality? Or was it a statement about exorcising our silence around multiple personalities or mental illness? Or was it just a shock-and-awe kind of campaign as she was nominated for this year’s Best New Artist?

I’m not sure what it was; all I know is that now I can’t sleep. I’ll let you guess what color I’m wearing to bed.

* * *


Update – February 13, 2012:

 Nicki Minaj explains the performance in her own words, as told to Ryan Seacrest by Jocelyn Vena on today’s MTV News website:



  1. Great read.
    I actually haven’t even watched her performance yet but everybody sure is talking about it. I did see that she showed up w/ the Pope.
    Now you make me scared to watch it!
    My guess is this had a lot to do w/ shock and awe with a touch of important social commentary.

    Comment by Jonathan Cunningham — February 13, 2012 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

    • Dear Jonathan,
      THANKS so much for reading and commenting. It means a lot to me, coming from an esteemed journalist like yourself!
      Peace & love always, Emily

      Comment by Emily Lawsin — February 14, 2012 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  2. Hi Emily!

    Like you, I was aghast at watching Minaj’s performance. Similar thoughts came to my mind but rested on the idea that her performance is pure spectacle, a mode of production that reifies popular capitalist entertainment. I refer to Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle.

    “The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society. In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption. The spectacle’s form and content are identically the total justification of the existing system’s conditions and goals. The spectacle is also the permanent presence of this justification, since it occupies the main part of the time lived outside of modern production.”

    I hope you lost no sleep over this, ‘cuz compared to Minaj, you are a bigger diva diba?!

    Rico Reyes

    Comment by Rico — February 17, 2012 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

    • Dear Rico,
      So glad to hear from you. Maraming Salamat/Many Thanks for your perceptive comments! The quote by Guy Debord on spectacle is right on point! Hope you are well. Mahals. 🙂

      Comment by Emily Lawsin — February 29, 2012 @ 1:10 pm | Reply

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